Features animal-handling sessions
CHARLESTOWN, Indiana––Wildlife In Need (WIN) roadside zoo operator Tim Stark on February 7, 2020 told WDRB reporter Chad Mills that he intends to appeal the February 3, 2020 permanent revocation of his USDA license to exhibit animals by chief administrative law judge Channing D. Strother and remain in business.
The Wildlife In Need page on Facebook indicates that “Exotic Animal Encounters,” “Sloth VIP Events,” and an “Adult Only Exotic Animal Encounter” were held as scheduled on February 8, 2020. Additional “Exotic Animal Encounters” were booked for February 9, 2020, and another “Sloth VIP Event” was scheduled for February 22, 2020.
Stark reality is that while Stark and WIN may still be doing business as usual, Stark lost on almost every point in Judge Strother’s 144-page written decision.
Besides stripping Stark of his exhibition license, Strother fined Stark $40,000 and fined Wildlife In Need $300,000 for more than 120 alleged violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act.
Appeals may buy Stark some time, but the highly detailed Strother verdict appears likely to close Wildlife In Need in the due course of time, if not necessarily immediately.
Wildlife In Need in 2015, 2016, and 2017 raked in more than $1 million annually, according to the zoo’s most recent available IRS Form 990 filings.
“Tiger Baby Playtime”
“Tiger Baby Playtime” events and other animal-handling opportunities are the Wildlife In Need big draws, even as the facility purports to be a 501(c)(3) charity “dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation and release of indigenous wildlife, and to providing a permanent safe harbor to an array of exotic, endangered species and public education.”
Wildlife In Need has already been enjoined from holding “Tiger Baby Playtime” events since February 2018 by a preliminary injunction won by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in a lawsuit alleging violations of the Endangered Species Act.
The injunction “resulted in a first-of-its-kind agreed-upon ruling holding that declawing ESA-protected big cats without medical necessity violates the ESA,” posted PETA spokesperson Michelle Kretzer to the PETA web site.
“We’ll continue working until Stark is banned from possessing animals as well,” Kretzer pledged.
Botched declaws killed tiger cubs
The PETA case originated, explained Jeffersonville News & Tribune reporter Elizabeth Beilman, after a March 2017 USDA Animal & Plant Inspection Service finding that at least 20 exotic big cats at Wildlife In Need had been declawed.
“The USDA inspection report found that two tiger cubs [who had been] recently declawed had severe complications, one predicted by a veterinarian to have a 50% chance of survival. The lawsuit also argues that other violations include cubs being taken from their mothers weeks after their birth, and public encounters with animals who are ‘handled roughly, hit and dragged’,” wrote Beilman.
Both the Strother ruling of February 3, 2020 and the PETA litigation indicates that neither of the declawed cubs survived.
In October 2018, reported Aprile Rickert of the Jeffersonville News & Tribune on February 6, 2020, veterinarian Ricky L. Pelphrey agreed in settlement of a related PETA lawsuit “in which he was accused of illegally declawing 12 cats without medical reason,” that he would no longer provide care to any “lions, tigers or hybrids thereof” listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Wrote Indiana Lawyer correspondent Olivia Covington, “Pelphrey,” of Mobile Services Veterinary Equine, “provided veterinary services to Wildlife in Need. During the March 2017 USDA inspection, Stark initially hid two tiger cubs from the inspectors, later claiming Pelphrey had ‘botched a declawing procedure.”
Summarized Louisville Courier-Journal reporter Lexy Gross, “There were approximately 40-50 people at Wildlife in Need on that day, including one newborn baby, a toddler, and approximately 10 children below the age of 10. People were instructed to keep body parts out of the reportedly 35- to 40-pound tiger cubs’ mouths” during “Tiger Baby Playtime.”
Tiger cubs “controlled” with riding crop
“One cub appeared to be asleep and was dragged out by its front feet,” according to the USDA inspection report. “The cubs had no collars or leashes, and Wildlife in Need attendants would swat the cubs with a short whip if they tried to bite. One of the cubs bit a woman, ‘apparently breaking the skin.’ She was led out of the room.
“The cubs were [said to be] ‘too big, too fast, and too dangerous’ to walk among people freely,” wrote Gross.
“‘The use of a riding crop to prevent these large, aggressive cubs from biting is considered physical abuse and can cause unnecessary discomfort, pain and suffering to the animal,’ the report states,” Gross continued. “And the USDA official said in the report that not only is the situation dangerous to the public, but the cubs are exhibited almost daily––often several times a day––with a one-hour break. On the day of the inspection, the animals had been exhibited for five hours with 11 sessions total.”
The same USDA inspection report “also notes the exhibition of a young monkey, used for photos with the public, and it becoming agitated,” Gross said.
The March 2017 inspection findings were only the beginning of the many complaints about Wildlife In Need that Judge Strother recounted in his February 3, 2020 decision.
Began WHAS11 in a six-part investigative series aired three days after Judge Strother rendered his verdict, “For more than 20 years, the self-proclaimed animal refuge Wildlife in Need has offered the public unmatched access to exotic animals in Southern Indiana.”
The WHAS11 series presented “seven whistleblowers who agreed to tell their stories.”
Former volunteer Jordan Jones testified, WHAS11 summarized, that “during her two years at Wildlife in Need she never saw Stark, or any other staff, rehabilitate and release an animal, but she did see them come into the facility.
Said Jones, “He’s been operating since 1999–this has always been something that’s been swept under the rug. It’s the norm. Anytime somebody has dropped off an animal, 99% of the time that animal was fed to another animal.”
“Euthanized” leopard with baseball bat
Jones described a December 2012 incident in which Stark “euthanized” a leopard with a baseball bat. Stark claimed in a video “that when Wildlife In Need received the leopard, it was ‘terminally’ ill,” reported Elizabeth DePompei for the Jeffersonville News & Tribune in July 2016.
“One day, he walked into the leopard’s enclosure with the wooden bat in hand, reached for the leopard’s bowl, and the leopard came out of its den,” DePompei wrote.
“And [it] was trying to come out to attack me, but it was staggering. And when it tried to run and it fell, and it fell into the bat,” Stark said. “And when it did, it fell over into seizures and it was going into massive seizures and it was screaming its head off and I knew it was beyond the point of no return.”
Misrepresented AVMA guidelines
Wrote DePompei, “Stark said he could have called the veterinarian, but that it could have taken hours or days for someone to show up.”
Therefore, Stark said, “I euthanized that animal in five seconds and it was done and over.”
Stark claimed that killing the leopard by blunt force was a method approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association, but as AVMA spokesperson Sharon Granskog affirmed three days later, to Louisville Courier-Journal reporter Lexy Gross, “The method used by Mr. Stark is not in accordance with the AVMA Guidelines on Euthanasia.”
Stark and Wildlife In Need operated uneventfully for almost a decade, 1999-2007, apparently just under the radar of the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Indiana State Department of Natural Resources, and animal advocacy groups.
Sold ocelot without permit
In 2008, however, Stark pleaded guilty to selling an ocelot to a Texas woman without having the proper permit to sell a member of an endangered species.
Several more quiet years followed.
In 2013 a Wildlife In Need neighbor, Doris Armstrong, reported to Indiana Department of Natural Resources that her boyfriend had shot a 48-pound leopard in her backyard, after several of their pets were killed, said to have been “dragged off the porch and into the woods.”
“Stark denied the leopard was his,” reported WHAS11, “ but according to USDA records, inspectors ‘conclude[d] that there is a reasonable suspicion that it was one of the leopards of Mr. Stark.’”
In 2014, however, despite having cited Stark for having tiger cages smaller than the legally required minimum, the USDA renewed Stark’s exhibitor’s license to keep exotic wildlife.
Won twice in court
Almost a year later, in early 2015, the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service moved to suspend Stark’s exhibitors’ permit, citing the 2008 Endangered Species Act violation and claiming that Stark “has been found to have harmed the animals in his custody.”
The USDA argued before Administrative Law Judge Janice Bullard in 2016 that it was obligated to renew the permit of anyone who applied and paid the requisite fee, regardless of whether complaints about permit violations were pending against the permit holder.
Bullard, however, ruled in Stark’s favor.
The USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service appealed, losing the appeal in September 2016 before Judicial Officer William G. Jenson.
Odor of gas
By then a January 12, 2016 fire had killed 41 animals at Wildlife In Need, mostly native birds and reptiles, Stark said.
The cause of the fire was never officially disclosed. The Charlestown Fire Department reported responding to a neighbor’s complaint about an odor of gas earlier in the day.
Stark has repeatedly alleged, including before WHAS11 television cameras, that the fire was an arson set by PETA, further alleging that PETA has set fires “all over the country,” but Stark has also admitted that he has no evidence for making the charge.
Even before losing the appeal to Judicial Officer Jenson, the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service had filed a whole new set of complaints against Stark and Wildlife In Need.
“Numerous instances of physical abuse”
Itemized Gross, of the Louisville Courier-Journal, “The USDA described in its report a brown bear” who had an unknown injury to her left elbow, with “a significant amount of bright red blood in her fur,” who had not received veterinary care; a kangaroo who “had died of unknown causes,” also without receiving veterinary care; two baby otters who “died due to a potential formula issue,” again without receiving veterinary care; an adult otter who “appeared sick and died within the hour,” according to the USDA inspector, also without receiving veterinary care; and allegedly inadequate winter shelter for a dog, hyenas, wolves, tigers and lions.
Added Louisville Courier-Journal reporters Bobby Shipman and Kristina Goetz, “The USDA complaint cited numerous instances of physical abuse of tiger cubs, including a description of Stark slapping them and his personnel repeatedly hitting several in the face with a riding crop. Stark was also accused of improperly handling five nonhuman primates during another exhibition,” including that he “was observed to swing a nonhuman primate around by a belt and then toss the primate onto the lap of one of (his) customers.
“Verbally abused inspectors”
“On four separate dates,” Goetz and Shipman wrote, “the complaint alleges Stark verbally abused inspectors and interfered with their investigations. He ‘repeatedly used profanity, slammed his fist on the table several times (and) repeatedly called his attending veterinarian a “(expletive) lying (expletive),” according to the complaint. The USDA alleges Stark told inspectors and Indiana State troopers to get off his property and that he told a federal veterinary medical officer he was ‘sick and tired’ of her ‘(expletive) opinions.’”
Some of this confrontation was captured on video.
Wildlife In Need was also accused of neglecting human safety, recounted Goetz and Shipman, with “wooden walkways in disrepair, logs with exposed nails, and a lack of potable water and shade. In several instances, the USDA charged that animal enclosures were not ‘constructed of such material and strength as appropriate and in a manner that would contain the animals.’”
Hyena injured employee
The Wildlife In Need operating permit was suspended for a time in 2017, but was restored by January 2018.
Reported WHAS11, “Former staff and volunteers we spoke with call what’s happening at Wildlife in Need ‘hoarding, ’ and say it has led to animal neglect, animal escapes, and people getting hurt,” including an employee who according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources suffered deep wounds to his arm and ankle in June 2019 while trying to get an escaped hyena back into a cage.
“That man has since filed a lawsuit against Tim Stark and Wildlife in Need,” WHAS11 said, “demanding damages accrued through the treatment of the victim’s injuries.”
Bought tigers from Joe Exotic
The Strother ruling against Stark and Wildlife In Need came just two weeks after former wildlife exhibitor Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, also known as Joe Exotic and formerly known as Joseph Schreibvogel, was on January 23, 2020 sentenced to serve 22 years in federal prison for trying to hire a hit man to kill Big Cat Rescue founder Carole Baskin.
Baskin is a longtime outspoken critic of traveling shows and roadside zoos––like Wildlife In Need––that allegedly “speed-breed” animals in order to exhibit babies young enough to be legally handled.
“During the trial,” Baskin recounted in “Joe Exotic” tried to kill me: Carole Baskin tells her own story, “several big cat owners were specifically mentioned as people Passage had sold tigers to,” including Stark.